Barts Choir’s Poulenc and Beethoven

Poulenc and Beethoven: Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor), David Soar (bass), Barts Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra, Ivor Setterfield, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London, 5.4.2011 (BBr)

Poulenc: Stabat Mater (1950)
Beethoven: Symphony No.9 in D minor, Choral, op.125 (1817/1824)

It was because of the death of his friend, the composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in 1936, that Poulenc re-discovered his lost faith and he commenced the large output of liturgical works which fill the second half of his career. It was the death of the artist Christian Bérard that brought about the composition of the Stabat Mater. Of his three large scale religious works for chorus and orchestra only the Gloria (1958) has achieved any kind of popularity – and it’s easy to understand why, it is a brilliant extrovert and entertaining work, quite unlike the Stabat Mater and the Sept répons des ténèbres (1962) which are very serious and deeply devotional.

Tonight, the Stabat Mater received a very fine performance from the huge Barts Choir, which made a splendid case for the work, from the most delicate a cappella sections to the big, and impressive, choral and orchestral movements, which carry quite a punch. Madeleine Pierard was very good in her small, but significant, role and she worked well with chorus and orchestra. Stabat Mater will never be a popular work, but hearing a performance as good as this will help to introduce it to a larger audience, and, hopefully, win it new friends.

The ‘Choral’ Symphony is a different matter. Ivor Setterfield set about matters with the right approach and directed the first movement in a fast tempo which heightened the drama of the music. The scherzo was buoyant and the slow movement serious and sustained. However, despite good tempi and playing the music lacked personality and couldn’t raise itself above the bland and prosaic. Things improved when the singing started – Setterfield is obviously a choral conductor first and foremost – and the famous finale rushed past thrillingly, but with little finesse. The solo quartet was good and the chorus splendid but the music never really came alive and grabbed one.

This concert showed Barts Choir to very good advantage and it was a real pleasure to hear it, especially its supreme eloquence in the Poulenc.

Bob Briggs